Top IT Strategies for Hospitality VARs
By Julie Ritzer Ross
Technology evolution continues to be the watchword in the restaurant and lodging sectors alike. This issue, VSR takes a look at what’s happening now and what VARs can expect in the short term.
1. Line-Busting Applications Burst In. Restaurants, cafes and similar establishments that do brisk takeout business are jumping on the line-busting bandwagon in an effort to get customers out the door faster and decrease the incidence of “walkaways.” pcAmerica (www.pcamerica.com) unveiled Restaurant Pro Express (RPE) Mobile, a line-busting solution that allows waitstaff to take customers’ orders while they are in line and send them directly to kitchen or other prep stations. RPE Mobile operates on Apple iPod Touch and iPhone devices and integrates with pcAmerica’s Restaurant Pro Express POS system.
2. New Plays For Pay at the Table, “Pay-at-the-table is still the hottest technology in the hospitality vertical,” which alone merits its inclusion in resellers’ arsenals, asserts VAR Michael Thornton, CEO of ProPOS Technology (www.propostechnology.com), Bedford, N.H.
While pay-at-the-table applications built around operator-owned mobile hardware have been popular for quite some time, those that enable diners to use their own NFC-enabled smartphones or similar devices to handle their checks are fast gaining ground. PAYware Mobile, from VeriFone (www.verifone.com), is one example.
Another entrant in this market is Tabbedout (www.tabbedout.com), through which restaurant patrons can open and monitor tabs, transfer them between areas of a venue (for example, from the bar to the table) and initiate a credit or debit card payment from an NFC-enabled device. Checks can also be settled using PayPal. Tabbedout has been certified to operate with a number of restaurant POS software systems, including that of Dinerware (www.dinerware.com). Dinerware CEO Jeff Riley believes applications like Tabbedout will become more prevalent because of the ease of integration with open POS platforms.
3. Tablets, Tablets Everywhere. At the front of the house, restaurant operators are embracing tablet computers to enhance guest service without increasing costs. Presto, a tablet application developed by Palo Alto, Calif.-based ISV E la Carte (www.elacarte.com), takes orders, predicts when diners’ food will arrive at their table, acts as a personal sommelier, splits checks, calculates tips, and accepts payments. The software is programmable, permitting menus to be changed to reflect specials and price tweaks. Chefs can change their menus regularly, offer daily specials, and update photos of food and drinks. Rajit Suri, founder, says E la Carte’s research demonstrates that Presto can cut a restaurant’s labor costs by 26 percent, increase sales by up to 10 percent per check, and reduce lingering at the table by seven minutes.
Gathering steam too, are front-of-the-house tablet applications designed not only to improve restaurants’ guest service, but also to facilitate myriad management tasks. One source points to an iPad application by Urbanspoon. Like Open Table (www.opentable.com), the system electronically fills in and displays at host stands reservations made via its own website, on restaurants’ websites and by telephone. It also lets hosts switch tables around and move them together to accommodate larger parties; displays wait times; permits operators to note and, if applicable, convey to waitstaff customer preferences or special needs (e.g., favorite beverages or food allergies) and track seats and sales down to the hour.
In the kitchen, there exists a move among operators to harness tablets to accept orders and to convey information to waitstaff. According to a recent study by Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com), tablets rank as one of the top mobile technologies planned for deployment by hospitality enterprises in 2012 as they “look to empower their staff to delight their guests and differentiate their brand.” Such empowerment, notes Thomas Moore, the company’s director of retail and hospitality solutions, extends to the kitchen. Motorola Solutions recently launched the ET1 tablet, which offers, among other features, multi-user login support.
Other up-and-coming tablet applications for the kitchen center on staff support and cost containment. Applications like Recipe Pad from BirchStreetSystems (www.birchstreetsystems.com) afford users access to written and photographic preparation instructions, along with the ability to assess cost and profitability by altering ingredient proportions and types.
On the lodging side, tablets are starting to supplant kiosks used for guest check-in and check-out. At some hotels, including the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn., arriving and departing guests can engage the services of a staff member equipped with an Apple iPad instead of heading to the front desk for assistance. Hyatt Hotels Corp.’s Andaz-branded properties use iPads to perform check-ins, accept payment, and provide room keys even before guests set foot in the front door or while walking to their hotel rooms.
4. Printers On the Move. Louder cries for customer service are spurring restaurant operators to “bring the receipt closer to the customer,” asserts Barry Wise, senior marketing consultant, Epson America (pos.epson.com). Some operators fit the bill by arming servers with belt-clip printers, but others—particularly larger ones—take a more flexible approach. “While belt clip printers provide truly on-the-go printing of receipts, many larger restaurants are setting up wireless print stations, which offer a lot of flexibility depending on which areas of the restaurant are busiest on any given day or night,” Wise says. “Wait staff is more readily available to serve the customer, increasing sales, and turning tables more quickly.”
5. Gift and Loyalty Cards Go Virtual—Social, Too. The size of the virtual gift card market, coupled with a heightened consumer affinity for being able to purchase gift cards online, renders virtual gift card applications a good bet for VARs. “It’s quickly become a billion-dollar market,” says Brian Riley, senior research director, TowerGroup (www.towergroup.com). Mercury Payment Systems (www.mercurypay.com) has introduced several virtual gift card programs from which its reseller partners can select.
Meanwhile, with applications like Sundrop Mobile (www.sundropmobile.com)—from which VARs can earn recurring sign-up revenues—barcodes on mobile phones have taken the place of loyalty cards. Most loyalty applications are also being linked with social media; for example, when guests earn a reward, that information is posted to Facebook or Foursquare.
Imaging scanners that are optimized to read the barcodes on virtual gift and loyalty cards have hit the market. Motorola Solutions’ newest launches in this category encompass the 1D-enabled cordless and lightweight LI4278 handheld linear imager and the 2D-enabled DS9208 hands-free presentation imager.
6. Online Ordering Moves Onward and Upward. Several drivers, all of which render online ordering applications a fairly easy sell for VARs—continue to keep the technology on restaurant operators’ hot lists. Such drivers include the potential to bolster guest satisfaction through significant decreases in the amount of time needed to execute orders, easy access to menus and specials, improved order accuracy and heightened consumer control over the entire ordering process, tops the list. Other advantages encompass the ability to boost sales by leveraging online ordering technology to intelligently upsell high-margin impulse menu items or other fare based on individual customers’ previous orders and/or end-user specifications, as well as to cultivate diners’ loyalty by collecting customer e-mail addresses and subsequently sending them promotional information in line with specific criteria, like ordering frequency and location.
A trend toward integrating online ordering technology with restaurant POS applications sold through the channel—Dinerware and Posera (www.maitred
pos.com) among them—has taken hold as end-users increasingly recognize that melding these two elements streamlines the overall web-based order acceptance and payment purchasing process. Integrated online ordering/POS systems also yield restaurateurs a better handle on inventory and render it easier to save orders from cancellation should a patron’s desired dish be temporarily unavailable for purchase. As an example, if a customer tries to order a special and the supply of that item has been entirely depleted, that information is transmitted from the POS system to the ordering system and the customer is notified immediately, in time to select a substitute meal component.
Moreover, online ordering is going mobile, with web applications being optimized to work from a variety of mobile devices. With mobile as a whole becoming so pervasive, “mobile ordering is assuming a number of forms—and that means online as well as tableside by waitstaff or in customer-driven” form, states Shelley Plomske, vice president, products, Mercury Payment Systems (www.mercurypay.com). Plomske notes that despite the appeal of mobile applications in general, VARs may encounter reluctance among potential end-users to board the train. Yet, it should not be difficult to turn the tide.
“It is important for VARs to start embracing this technology because it is here to stay,” Plomske asserts. “Merchants are going to look to VARs for guidance on what products to implement and how to implement them. I suggest starting slow, such as maybe with a mobile wait list that could eventually lead to a mobile loyalty program and online meal ordering, then table-side ordering and payments.”
7. Tech Helps the Word Get Out. Regulations concerning nutritional content and allergy labeling means the government is compelling restaurant operators—and hoteliers with restaurants, for that matter—to seek convenient means of conveying the requisite information to consumers. “Creative solutions, from smart labeling to an interactive nutrition kiosk and digital signage, can easily provide the needed information without increasing the already demanding requirements of quick service or burdening food service workers with having to remember a tome of nutritional information,” observes Bill Nulf, sales director, North America, TE Touch Solutions (www.elotouch.com).
8. Room Keys Get Kicked Up a Notch. To provide additional convenience to guests, as well as to go green by eschewing plastic room keys, hotel operators are beginning to develop an interest in leveraging alternative technologies to open hotel room doors. Recent years have seen the launch of technology that gets the job done using cell phones, but these first-generation offerings were limited to the Apple iOS platform. The next generation of solutions is now emerging.
OpenWays (www.openways.com), a provider of mobile access and security applications, earlier this year rolled out the second iteration of its Mobile Key by OpenWays product. The latter is billed as the first ubiquitous, fully interoperable, carrier independent application of its kind. It works on all smartphone operating systems, according to Pascal Metivier, OpenWays founder and CEO.
9. Keys Open Doors to Service. Many hotel operators have long addressed security concerns by requiring that guests present their room key cards to an access control system to enter their premises during off-hours and/or ride the elevators to the executive level. But with hoteliers focusing just as much—or more—on bucking the competition with cutting-edge guest services and convenience-boosters, it makes sense for VARs to offer up new key-based technology that gets the job done.
At the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, reseller/ISV KABA Lodging (www.kaba
ilco.com), Montreal, has implemented a lock-and-keycard solution that interfaces with a destination-dispatch system used to manage the property’s eight passenger elevators. Guests swipe their keycards across one of several RFID readers installed at the elevator banks, causing the destination-dispatch system to summon the closest elevator with the lowest number of already-scheduled stops. Only keycard holders are permitted to use the elevators to access guestroom floors during defined hours of operation.
Meanwhile, at ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, a move to offer more personalized service to guests sparked the integration of technology from ISV Control4 (www.control4.com). Upon guests’ first post check-in arrival in their rooms, the system turns on the lights and television set and opens the draperies. Guests see their names shown in the top left-hand corner of the television screen, which displays options for additional lighting, thermostat and drapery controls and serves as a conduit for ordering food, extra towels and other services. Messages, such as “the door is ajar” or “the deadbolt is locked” appear as well.